It is close to impossible to get a group of progressives to stand united on anything. But if not everyone could agree with the T-shirt that proclaimed George W. Bush the Worst President Ever, the almost half a million people who gathered in New York City to protest the Republican National Convention were surprisingly uniform in their message: Bush had been bad for the world and it was time for him to get out.
It was by far the largest demonstration ever at a political convention. Taking almost six hours, the throng trekked up Seventh Avenue to Madison Square Garden the site of the convention, starting Monday and back downtown to Union Square. The size and the energy of the crowd, diverse even by New York City standards, was the main story here. And it was a testament to the protestors and the organizers – United for Peace and Justice – that earlier debates surrounding the protest (peaceful vs. violent protestors, Central Park or the West Side Highway) seemed irrelevant. The message of large-scale voter dissatisfaction carried the day.
Who were all those people in the streets? Certainly not a left-wing conspiracy, many of the people marching together had just met that day. Bearers of a thousand flag-draped coffins representing U.S. deaths in Iraq had found each other on the website www.1000coffins.org. Billionares for Bush, a group of people who dress up as uber-rich Bush supporters, has seventy-five chapters around the country, according to one of its founders, Andrew Boyd. Many of the members only find each other at protests by seeking out the other ladies and gentlemen in pearls and bowties.
While groups came from as far away as Portland and Texas, many New Yorkers seemed personally affronted that the Republican National Convention had chosen New York. Im mortally ashamed of this administration, said Beth Lemont, a 75-year-old United Nations worker. Working in my job and living in this city, Ive seen the depth of the wreckage this government has caused.
Weve been through enough, said Dora Rivera of Manhattan. We have enough to worry about and we cant afford to have them here. Hassan, an ice cream vendor, agreed. The Republican National Convention has been very bad for business, he said, already this weekend it seems that New Yorkers have been scared away.
The potential conflicts that scared some away never seemed to materialize. Instead of being a battle site, the Great Meadow in Central Park was more like a modern version of a be-in. Signs ranging from the poetic Counting Bodies Like Sheep to the Rhythm of the War Machine – to the flip Game Over Cowboy – lay in the grass as protesters played Kick the Heads of State soccer or participated in impromptu civil disobedience trainings. Most simply lay on the lawn, resting tired feet and trading protest stories.
Not everything went completely without a hitch – 200 people were arrested during the day for everything from riding their bicycles up the wrong street to kissing the wrong person at a gay rights demonstration – but the overall equanimity of the day and the solidarity of the march were historic. In 2000, while progressives were arguing amongst themselves, conservative groups put aside differences to get George W. Bush elected. This year will be a vastly different scene. If nothing else, the Bush administration seems to have unified hundreds of thousands of people with vastly different experiences and interests. If we can come together and defeat Bush in November, said Liz, a young Brooklyn mother at her first protest, imagine what else we can accomplish.